The Rannoch Crossing is one of the most idyllic expeditions in Scotland. On the cusp of spring, the weather is gloriously bright, and hell has yet to release the midges. (Beware: they’re due in a couple of weeks). In fact, this place is one of the jewels in the crown of the Highlands, and one of the most spectacular open canoe trips in Europe. The loch feels as open and exposed as the sea, but with a bizarre fishbowl effect created by the jagged peaks of Glen Coe, dwarfed by Rannoch Moor.
Without a single breath of wind, the surface of the water is so reflective that the landscape and the sky merge into one as if you’re paddling through the clouds. It’s bizarre and surreal, and the water seems to drop away from the boat in the same way that the sky passes beneath a plane.
Social media makes it look so easy: sleeping under the stars, swimming in glacial lakes, packing your belongings into an open canoe for a multi-day adventure. Every corner—even those most remote and inaccessible places—of the world is available online, in as high a resolution as the human eye can see.
In a way, the Internet has made true wilderness more valuable. Online, you can see the mountains, but you can’t feel the wind burning your face. You can watch, from the inside of a barrel, and understand what it looks like to surf, but you can’t taste the salt or feel your hand slice through the spray of water. Being in the wild is so incredibly dynamic, social media simply can’t do it justice.
Sitting on the pebbly shore of a loch, the magnitude of the starry night sky, evidence of how small we are, dominates my thoughts. Because to get there, we had to get through the wild. We had to do the small things, the huge things, the brave things and the slightly weird things, to reach this moment of pure stillness. An open canoe trip through some of the most beautiful, diverse and ancient landscapes in the world is one way to reach moments of stillness that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Like all incredible things, a journey like this takes a willingness to adapt.
The most important part of any expedition is the preparation stage. It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the adventure, and far too easy to miss a detail that could cost you the trip, or worse, put you at risk. If you can, carry something like a SPOT so that you can access signal from remote areas where your mobile may not pick it up. In addition, you should always have someone on call who is expecting you back after your trip and knows what to do should you not return on time or reach out.
Plan for the weather ahead of time. Weather in Scotland can change from fair to catastrophic quickly, so you have to pack a well-thought-out layering system. You need kit that’s light enough that it doesn’t take a toll on your energy, but warm enough to keep you from being dangerously cold. Check the weather forecast on the same day as you start, and if possible, during the trip. Being caught in a remote place isn’t funny, and if the weather turns bad without warning, the situation could turn life-threatening with little warning. Go in with a plan, and even the harshest weather conditions can become an adventure rather than a desperate situation.
To keep your tent, your sleeping bag and all of those layers dry, you have to pack them into big dry duffels. (Which are amazing. You can launch them as hard as you like onto rocks, chase them down rapids and generally abuse them for the entirety of an expedition.)
And don’t forget water. When you’re surrounded by water on an expedition, it’s so easy to forget. But the sun and wind are dehydrating, and while water is heavy and annoying, bringing your own assures you that it’s sterile and won’t ruin a short trip.
Once you’ve packed just about your own bodyweight of kit into a canoe and carried it to the put-in, you already feel like your arms could use a break. It seems like a lot, but the sheer weight of your kit evaporates with your first paddle stroke. I think the first paddle stroke in an open canoe is a moment everyone should experience.
No matter how well kitted out you are, an open canoe gets heavy on long flat stretches of water. Instagram might capture the beauty of one moment in time, the way the loch perfectly reflects the mountains in glorious symmetry. But what a single photo can’t do, is tell you how much more precious those things are in contrast to the strain in your arms, the movement of the boat under you, and the sharp wind that’s just started to burn your face.
A challenging expedition often involves several kilometres of hard paddling. Some of the smaller bits of kit, that might seem insignificant against things like paddles and fire pits, become critical. You can go blind from the sun reflecting off the water, so sunglasses go from accessory to essential. It’s fifteen degrees Celsius, until the wind turns; the chill can drop to minus five, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so crazy that you packed those extra layers.
The first paddle stroke in your canoe was effortless, but you might not be used to it; your hands can rub raw and keeping the boat on a straight line is much harder, which makes the journey infinitely longer. When the loch looked like glass and your arms were still fresh, going through the motions felt like a gesture at safety. But on every crossing, there is a moment when you’re super happy that you bothered to slip on gloves, put snacks in your buoyancy aid pockets, and kept your woolly hat at the top of your dry bag.
This is what makes us wild. To find the moments of joy that are polarised by the effort it takes to reach them. But this access is a huge privilege and can come at a cost. It’s the law of the outdoor community to leave everything as we found it. When you’re planning an incredible canoe trip, it’s easy to remember things that will make your experience more pleasurable—plates, glasses, coffee, food, tents, maybe some beer and a fire pit. The gear that’s harder to remember are the things that will help make the next person’s experience just as wild. Your trip shouldn’t impact the wilderness.
For instance, a poo tube is crucial. Human waste can be catastrophic for the environment around you. Most of rural Scotland is supplied by private water, straight from the streams and rivers. A poo tube is a capsule that contains a trowel, a roll of recycled toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitiser. Make sure you don’t go on a slope close to a stream or a river, and make sure you bury it nice and deep!
Firewood may seem superfluous in the woods, but somewhere like Rannoch Moor doesn’t have many trees near the loch, and to be honest, the wildlife needs it more than you do. If you’re planning on having a cooking fire, bring your own firewood. Make sure you don’t leave it unattended (we saw over the last couple of years how quickly forest fires can incinerate an entire ecosystem) and completely dismantle it when you leave camp. Scatter the ashes, bury the evidence, and leave it exactly as you found it.
And lastly, bring a bag for your rubbish and throw it away at home. It sounds obvious, but so often if there is loose rubbish at a campsite it can be hard to make space for it amongst your essential equipment. You might also need to make space to take away rubbish that you found at the campsite when you arrived. It’s our responsibility to keep these places clean, and if the visitor before you had poor preparation, at least you came equipped to remove the waste.
You’ll realize the effort was worth it when you’re sitting on that pebbly beach. It’s dusk, but the stars are already out. You’ve set up your tent, the boats are safe, and the bitter, sweet smell of woodsmoke is starting to flavor everything. The wind is threatening to drop the temperature. But right now, it feels like your jacket will hold out and do the job. Someone puts the grill on the fire pit and passes you a beer. It’s not cold, but it tastes better than you could have imagined. It feels as if the universe has designed everything in this moment just for you. The crackling of a fire, and the knowledge that you are capable of accessing places like this, leave space for you to enjoy being exactly where you are.
It’s these moments in time, where the stillness becomes stark. By enduring the wild, we earn the clarity and peace that comes with the most beautiful parts. You can look at a photo for a second. Maybe a couple of minutes if it’s really nice. When you prepare yourself and do the hard work that comes with organizing and executing a trip, the wild can stay with you for the rest of your life.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Amber Maslen is a full-time athlete, specializing in slalom but with a particular interest in leaving certain things better than she found them. This includes improving the space for women in the outdoor community and enabling people to understand how to best look after the natural environments that we love.